Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
The Capitol Steps have a decades-long national reputation for biting, hilarious political satire. I have wanted to see them live and in person for a long time, pondering each time I listed a regional appearance on GailSez.com whether I had the time and gas money to travel all the way to Rutland or Brattleboro or Hartford to see them. The answer was always no. So I was excited when it was announced that they would come to Cranwell this summer.
Of course this announcement was also the official opening salvo in the Berkshire Culture Wars, a battle that was being fought, until that moment, covertly. The Capitol Steps have come to Cranwell to occupy the territory recently relinquished by The News In Revue, the political satire group that has had a monopoly on regional audiences since 1994.
My prior experience of the Capitol Steps was primarily aural. Every now and then I would stumble across one of their NPR broadcasts while driving and listen eagerly. Secretly, I long to write topical songs like that, and on occasion I have, and the Capitol Steps are the undisputed masters of the clever lyric. As they say in the final words of their show: “If there’s a political scandal, you can go to our Web site and see what it rhymes with.” As a girl who loves Gilbert & Sullivan, how could I not love The Capitol Steps?
The thing of it is, after a quarter of a century, there aren’t any Capitol Steps any more, just like there aren’t any Beach Boys. What you see when you go to a Capitol Steps performance is a handful (in this case five – three men, two women) of their stable of twenty-five performers, accompanied by one of their five pianists. I saw Andy Clemence, Michael Forrest, Nancy Dolliver, Tracey Stephens, and Brad Van Grack accompanied by Marc Irwin, but that line-up will change over the course of the summer, as will the material performed. Now obviously the material will change to remain topical, but it will also change according to the specialties of the performers. This is an anti-star system. All of the Capitol Steps performers have to be interchangeably good in order to ensure every show is of the high quality their audiences have come to expect.
The men first appear as George W. Bush (Clemence), Al Gore (Forrest), and Ted Kennedy (Van Grack), and that pretty much sums up the persona each one represents. Throughout the evening Clemence plays the Republicans, Forrest plays the Democrats, and Van Grack plays the fat guys. Frankly, although Forrest made me laugh on several occasions, he never really stopped playing Al Gore. Clemence did a very good Bush, which is pretty much the key ingredient to successful political satire in 2007.
But Van Grack was the big star of the evening with his closing monologue “Lirty Dies,” an hilarious riff on all things topical told with the initial sounds of the words reversed. I will never think of poor little Shiloh Pitt the same way again. And I promise to always keep soap in my hole. A printed version of this monologue is freely available in the lobby after the show, cleverly printed on the back of the Capitol Steps merchandise order form.
The tall brunette Dolliver played Hillary Clinton, and I’ve seen better. I found her singing voice unsteady and grating. But the tiny blonde Stephens sings very well and does a nice job with all the roles she is assigned, which range from Nancy Pelosi to Kim Jong-il.
In addition to the “Lirty Dies” monologue, notable musical numbers included “TB On a Jet Plane,” “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea,” “Juan Nation” (to the tune of “One” from “A Chorus Line”), “Stayin’ Alive,” a disco number for the four elderly liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court, and two Gilbert & Sullivan rewrites that warmed the cockles of my heart – “Mad Attorney General” (sung by Alberto Gonzales, natch!) and “Three Little Kurds from School.”
Of course all of this may have changed by the time you go. I have never been handed such a useless program. It basically said, “You may see these performers and they may sing these songs.” And of course it told you how to order Capitol Steps merchandise, some of which, notably their latest CD “Springtime for Liberals,” is also for sale in the lobby after the show.
One of the main reasons I didn’t go to see The News In Revue during its eight year run at Cranwell was precisely because it was at Cranwell. I have been to Cranwell once for lunch, and it was very nice, but it is not a place for locals. It is a place for all those wealthy tourists on which our local economy depends. There’s nothing wrong with that. Cranwell is also a beautiful place, which preserves many acres of the Berkshire landscape from development, a fact that I greatly appreciate.
But with all its acres and many buildings, isn’t there a more comfortable and inviting place in the Cranwell complex for The Capitol Steps to perform? If that is the same space where The News In Revue performed, and I believe it is, I can see exactly why they left. It is an airless, windowless, soulless, low-ceilinged basement room crammed just as full as it will go with chairs that are only comfortable for about 60 of show’s the 90 minute run. The evening I was there was the tail end of a spectacular Berkshire summer day, sunny, breezy, low humidity, temps in the low 80’s at midday. And that room was fetid, stuffy, and hot. I shudder to think what it would be like at the end of a hot, humid day. Yuck!
So while I enjoyed all the smart and witty political humor I expected from The Capitol Steps, I did not enjoy seeing the Capitol Steps because of the location where they are performing. I would have been much happier sitting in a comfy chair with a tall glass of seltzer and lime in front of a fan listening to them on the radio. In fact I think I may use that handy order form I picked up and buy me some Capitol Steps’ CDs and do just that. I see that I can get four of them for less than the cost of a ticket at Cranwell. Hmmmm...
So how go the Berkshire Culture Wars? I have to say that I give The News In Revue the edge because their fine cast will not change over the course of the summer, their material is livelier because they don’t have to sound like their own CD’s (why don’t they have any? I’d buy one!), and their location is sooooo much nicer. They have a lower ticket price and Bousquet’s has always been a place for locals. The Mountainside Playhouse isn’t ideal but it has tables as well as chairs which give it a cabaret feel, and I could (and did) order my tall glass of seltzer with lime at the bar on my way upstairs. Their chairs were comfortable for about 70 of the 90 minutes of their show, but the fact that I felt I that was breathing relatively fresh air and was able to sip the beverage of my choice during the show made it easier to ignore the ultimate fanny fatigue.
The Capitol Steps will run through September 2 at Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club, 55 Lee Road (Rt. 20), Lenox. Tickets cost $49 and reservations are strongly recommended. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Don't bring children. The show isn't that rough, but the way the room is set up they won't be able to see a thing. For reservations and information please call the box office at 413-881-1636
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007